Thursday, April 22, 2010

THE ELEPHANT BOY

After spending the afternoon wandering in Mysore Palace, I found my way into the elephant compound, and had barely exchanged pleasantries and rubbed noses with the resident pachyderms, two lonely ladies chained to pegs driven into the ground, when an old man in a kurta, with long greasy matted locks and reeking of cheap liquor, gate-crashed our little ménage à trios (What?! It’s French for a party of three, and a far better phrase to describe the moment than ‘a jumbo threesome’ as someone suggested). I would’ve ignored the drunkard when he hollered a slurry warning, “This elephant’s dangerous… and you’re no elephant boy, young man!,” but he called me a young man… I had to lend him at least an ear after that. The kurta-clad figure didn’t stop though and stumbled and tumbled into the hedgerow… I took a hurried step or two to help the man to his feet.

“I’m okay, young man (!!)… I’m okay,” he protested, as I held his bony arms and helped him to his feet. But the man still swayed in tune with some loony rhythm in his head. I pulled him up a grass slope, and at the top the man lay down while I sat down to watch the palace domes as the last rays of the sun bounced off them, smearing the sky in streaks of amber, gold and fuchsia. The molten river of sunlight in the sky, the domes and spires of the palace, the milling crowd and its colours, the sculptures and gardens, and the two elephants, their trunks intertwined, like two housewives sharing a neighbourhood-gossip… it was a sublime sight.

Lost in that moment, I heard the man mutter in Kannada… “You okay?”, I asked.“The elephant boy… the elephant boy…” he said, in English this time. “Yes… I’m here...”, I reassured him, assuming he’d call me that since he’d seen me with the elephants. “Nai… not you… in my bag…” he said, with unrestrained consternation. More curious than miff ed, I handed him his satchel. Lying there on his back, he held the satchel to his chest and kept talking to himself. “Who’s the elephant boy?”, I asked him. Having sobered up a bit, he sat up and pulled out a thick handwritten manuscript from his bag which had an old laminated cover with the words ‘The Elephant Boy’ etched on it in calligraphic alphabets. “Super hit! Super hit!”, he chanted. Was that a movie script? “Script… novel… super hit story!”, he repeated, patting the manuscript.

Ramanna wasn’t a Kannadiga at all but a Telugu-speaking Hyderabadi. He’d spent all his adult years in Bengaluru and Mysore, working as a correspondent for a local daily, but in his heart beat a magnum opus – a story he believed would make him a “super hit writer” – the true story of Sabu – The Elephant Boy. “It started here,” said Ramanna, as he pointed a grimy long-nailed finger at the palace. “Sabu’s father was a palace mahout. He was born and raised amidst elephants. When his mother died after childbirth, whenever he would cry his little hammock was rocked by female elephants. Sabu was barely eight when his father also passed away. He was brought to the royal elephant stables, and out of consideration for his father’s services, the palace administration took him under their wing. Here, the little boy learnt to care for and ride the royal elephants. A prodigious learner with an intuitive understanding of the elephant psyche, he shared a special bond with these behemoths. Sabu was a happy little boy in a world of his own, a world where he had tusks, trunks and tails for toys, and gentle giants for playmates, who considered the little urchin one of their own.

The year was 1935, and that summer, rainbow dust invaded Sabu’s world of black, white and grey. Robert Flaherty, a filmmaker with a penchant for exotic locales and ‘local’ actors reached Mysore, location-hunting for his film based on Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Toomai of the Elephants’ – a story about the adventures of a little boy and his bull-elephant Kala Nag. Someone pushed little Sabu in front of a rolling camera, and the dusty little urchin was transformed into this beautiful lad whose earthy charms convinced Flaherty that this was his ‘Toomai’. His ease and unbridled joy around elephants removed whatever little doubts that might have remained. Sabu and his good friend Airavata, an enormous tusker, became the principal characters of the film. Soon, the two friends went to London to complete the film, where Sabu quickly learnt the language. The film, titled ‘Elephant Boy’, was a huge hit. Airavata retired and found a home at the London Zoo while Sabu was whisked away to Hollywood by Sir Alexander Korda, a film financier, and offered an exclusive contract.”

Sabu Dastagir, I later discovered, was quite a star. Unlike most Asian in Hollywood, he wasn’t just a one-film wonder but had starred in Hollywood classics like “The Thief of Baghdad” (1940), “The Jungle Book” (1942), and “Black Narcissus” (1947). He became an American citizen and even joined the Air Force, seeing action in World War II as a gunner. “Sabu returned to Mysore in 1952,” Ramanna continued… “He was a stable hand when he left on the back of an elephant but returned in a Cadillac as the king’s personal guest.” Unfortunately, the eternally youthful Sabu died of a heart attack in 1963 at the age of 39. It was a beautiful story cut tragically short

Still hugging the manuscript to his chest, Ramanna swung and swayed down the slope. “India has forgotten one of her sweetest sons… my book will remind them,” he’d said.

It was dark now. The moon bathed the courtyard in soft splashes of silver. Below the slope, the two elephants, their trunks still intertwined, rubbed against each other. I walked towards them and half-wished ‘… if only Robert Flaherty were to come back right now…’

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2 comments:

  1. 每個人生命中都可能遇到貴人,這些貴人不一定真的尊貴,他可能是陌生人,也可能是你的敵人。 ..................................................

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